Law schools offer a range of programs to fit your career ambitions and schedule. Most law schools share a common first-year approach to educating lawyers, with much more variation in the second and third years, such as opportunities for specialized programs, judicial clerkships, legal externships, participation in clinical programs and moot court, and involvement with public interest and governmental agencies. Meet real students who share their stories of activism, public service, and international travel as part of their law school education. Law school can be an intense, competitive environment–but the rewards are considerable.
The First Year
Your journey officially begins. The work will be challenging, and professors expect you to arrive at every class thoroughly prepared. Most professors give little feedback until the final examination for the course, and most course grades are determined primarily from end-of-semester or end-of-year exams.
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The Case Method Approach
The case method is unfamiliar for many first-year law students. It involves the detailed examination of a number of related judicial opinions that describe an area of law. You may be asked questions designed to explore the facts presented, to determine the legal principles applied in reaching a decision, or to analyze the method of reasoning used. In this way, professors encourage you to relate the case to others and to distinguish it from those with similar, but inapplicable, precedents.
By focusing on the underlying principles that shape the law’s approach to different situations, you will learn to distinguish among subtly different legal results and to identify the critical factors that determine a particular outcome.
The Ability to Think
There is an adage that the primary purpose of law school is to teach you to think like a lawyer. This is reinforced through the case method approach. Although the memorization of specifics may be useful to you, the ability to be analytical and literate is considerably more important than the power of total recall. Because laws continually change and evolve, specific rules may quickly lose their relevance, but the ability to think critically will be of the highest value. This is why critical thinking ability is assessed on the LSAT as a predictor of likelihood of success, and why preparing for the LSAT helps students once they’re in law school.
As a first-year law student, you will follow a designated course of study that may cover many of the following subjects:
- Civil procedure—the process of adjudication in the United States such as jurisdiction and standing to sue, motions and pleadings, pretrial procedure, the structure of a lawsuit, and appellate review of trial results.
- Constitutional law—the legislative powers of the federal and state governments, and questions of civil liberties and constitutional history, including detailed study of the Bill of Rights and constitutional freedoms.
- Contracts—the nature of enforceable promises and rules for determining appropriate remedies in case of nonperformance.
- Criminal law and criminal procedure—bases of criminal responsibility, the rules and policies for enforcing sanctions against individuals accused of committing offenses against the public order and well-being, and the rights guaranteed to those charged with criminal violations.
- Legal method—students’ introduction to the organization of the American legal system and its processes.
- Legal writing—learning legal research and writing are critical elements of most first-year law school experiences.
- Property law—concepts, uses, and historical developments in the treatment of land, buildings, natural resources, and personal objects.
- Torts—private wrongs, such as acts of negligence, assault, and defamation, that violate obligations of the law.
In addition to attending classes, you may be required to participate in a moot court exercise in which you must argue a hypothetical court case.
After the first year, you will likely have the opportunity to select from a broad range of courses. Most students will take foundation courses in administrative law, civil litigation, commercial law, corporations, evidence, family law, professional responsibility, taxation, and wills and trusts before completing their degree. Every law school supplements this basic curriculum with additional courses, such as international law, environmental law, conflict of laws, labor law, criminal procedure, and jurisprudence, and many law schools include clinical (experiential) opportunities as well.
Student organizations are a great supplement to classroom learning. Typically, these organizations are dedicated to advancing the interests of particular groups of law students, such as black students, female students, Hispanic students, or LGBTQ students. Other groups promote greater understanding of specific legal fields, such as environmental or international law, or provide opportunities for involvement in professional, social, and sports activities.
A unique feature of American law schools is that law students manage and edit most of the legal profession’s principal scholarly journals. Membership on the editorial staffs of these journals is considered a mark of academic distinction. Selection is ordinarily based on outstanding academic performance and writing ability.